An attack with a knife and cleaver that left a British soldier dead in southeast London struck at the heart of an area that’s become the center of terrorism trials in the U.K.
The victim was attacked just after 2 p.m. yesterday outside a military barracks in the Woolwich neighborhood of southeast London. U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron cut short a visit to Paris to fly back to London, saying there are “strong indications” the murder was a terrorist incident. Police have launched an investigation led by its counter-terrorism unit, Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe said.
“This makes me sick because it shouldn’t happen,” said James Coombes, who lives in nearby Plumstead. “If it is a Muslim extremist, I can kind of understand to a certain point, because they don’t like British soldiers.”
Along with the more than 200-year-old Royal Artillery Barracks, the area is home to nearly all of the U.K.’s terror trials. The prosecutions were moved to a high-security court less than two miles (three kilometers) from yesterday’s attacks around 2006 because of its proximity to Belmarsh Prison, so prisoners don’t have to be transported through London.
Video footage broadcast by ITV News showed a black man, his hands covered in blood and holding a cleaver and a knife, speaking after the attack.
“We must fight them as they fight us,” he said. “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Your people will never be safe,” he said. “Remove your government, they don’t care about you.” The man apologized that women had to witness the incident. “In our lands, our women see the same,” he said.
Police said the two suspects were shot by officers and are being treated in separate hospitals.
The case would be the first actual, rather than planned, attack in Britain investigated as a possible act of terrorism since the July 7, 2005, suicide bombings in London. Fifty-two people were killed when four Islamist suicide bombers set off explosions on underground trains and a bus in central London during the morning rush hour.
Cameron met with security chiefs this morning after being briefed by the police commissioner. Two government officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the information isn’t yet public, confirmed that the man killed was a soldier.
The attack happened at the junction of a busy road cutting through Woolwich on the same street as the barracks. A 20-story public-housing building stands next to the site. On the ground, police pitched two tents, and officers in gray boiler suits scoured the area for evidence.
“A number of weapons were reportedly being used in the attack, and this included reports of a firearm,” Simon Letchford, a Metropolitan Police detective, said in a statement.
The attackers were yelling “Allahu akbar,” meaning “God is great” in Arabic, Sky News television and the BBC reported.
Local residents said that while the neighborhood has gone through its ups and downs, they were shocked that such a serious crime occurred in the district.
“Woolwich is a very quiet area, but it is going through regeneration,” Benson Agoha, who has lived there for 10 years and describes himself as a local blogger, said at a Wetherspoons pub. “I have been worried in the last few years about some people’s behavior. How can something like this happen in broad daylight?”
Woolwich has been the site of terror attacks before. In 1974, two people were killed in the Kings Arms pub, a bar frequented by soldiers, when it was bombed by the Irish Republican Army. The incident was part of a spate of attacks as the conflict in Northern Ireland spread to other parts of the U.K.
Two of the most famous landmarks in the district, part of the borough of Greenwich, are the 237-year-old barracks and the high-security court a few miles away.
The original Woolwich Barracks were built in 1776 and in constant use as the Royal Artillery Headquarters until 2007. They were renovated and reopened in 2010 and have since housed the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery and athletes at last summer’s Olympic Games.
“Greenwich is a borough whose history and evolution is intertwined with military, both army and navy, and any attack by the barracks feels like a strike at the heart of our community,” said Chris Roberts, head of the Greenwich council.
The court first drew prominence in 2006 as terror trials were moved there from the Old Bailey in central London. In October of that year a British Muslim pleaded guilty to plotting to carry out a series of deadly bomb attacks in the U.S. and U.K., targeting sites including the New York Stock Exchange, the World Bank and Citigroup Inc.
Since then, more than two dozen people have been convicted for terrorism-related offenses at the high-security court in Woolwich.
As recently as February, three men were found guilty in Woolwich of planning a U.K. terror attack meant to be more devastating than the 2005 bombings of London buses and trains.